Nfld. & Labrador

'That river is a raging monster': 25-year-old woman dies after incident in Flatrock

A young woman is dead after being stuck underwater at a popular swimming spot in Flatrock on Wednesday.

Several deaths have not stopped swimmers from heading to Big River

A popular spot along Big River in Flatrock is known for several deaths over the years, including the 2017 drowning death of Zachary Knee, 16. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

A young woman is dead after being trapped underwater at a popular swimming spot in Flatrock on Wednesday.

The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary confirmed the 25-year-old's death with a press release Thursday.

Police and firefighters were called to Big River around 3:05 p.m., with reports of a swimmer being dragged underwater by the current. St. John's Regional Fire Department Platoon Chief Paul Chaytor said when they arrived, the woman was still underwater.

She was rushed to hospital and later pronounced dead.

"The RNC sends our deepest condolences to the family and friends of the deceased," the police release reads. "You are in our thoughts during this difficult time."

This is the second drowning death since 2017, when 16-year-old Zachary Knee was also trapped underwater by the current. A year after his death, Knee's family warned swimmers to think twice before entering the water at Big River.

At least three other people have drowned on the river in the past, including Chris Codner in 2002 and Fred Gamberg in 1995.

The Town of Flatrock erected signs in 2017 reminding visitors that Big River is not a designated swimming area, and stating that the river has claimed several lives in the past.

Strong warnings from mayor

Darrin Thorne has lived in Flatrock for 30 years. He's been the mayor for seven years. He's never set foot in Big River and he's grown accustomed to sleepless nights after hearing sirens tear through his town on summer days.

With rainfall on Sunday and Monday, and hot weather forecast for the rest of the week, it was a recipe for disaster.

"After a heavy rainfall like that, that river is a raging monster," Thorne told The St. John's Morning Show, hours before the RNC confirmed the swimmer had died.

Flatrock Mayor Darrin Thorne says this sign is important to warn people about the dangers of the swimming hole. Yet it keeps being removed. (Peter Cowan/CBC)

Thorne has done several of these interviews in the past. He spoke with CBC News last summer when people were tearing down the warning signs along the river and throwing them into the water.

One particular spot on the river has become notorious. Locals refer to it as the "whirly hole," a place where water enters a circular pool from the raging falls above. It can create a strong, cyclonic undertow, which pulls people under the surface and toward a crevice along the edge of the water.

It's an image that the mayor can't shake from his head.

"Your heart sinks pretty deeply when you hear this stuff. All I could think about was that young girl fighting for her life, and hoping and praying to God that she's OK."

A Royal Newfoundland Constabulary officer photographs a popular place along Big River in Flatrock, after a woman was rushed to hospital. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

As for the signage, Thorne acknowledges it's a small measure, but one of the few things council could do. The town doesn't condone it as a swimming hole, warns people against swimming there, and often gets police to ticket cars parked along the road on busy days.

At the end of the day, it's an easily accessible river that sits along a portion of the East Coast Trail and draws visitors from Flatrock, surrounding communities and the city. Despite the warnings and past tragedies, people still decide to swim there.

"Maybe [the signage] has saved a life," Thorne said. "Maybe someone has read that and not got in the river. But yesterday, someone got in the river and it didn't help."

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  • A prior version of this story incorrectly said Fred Gamberg died in 2015. He died in 1995.
    Jun 18, 2020 4:01 PM NT